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Worst way to deal with tech in schools is to ban it

Patricia Edgar

July 10 2019

Australian states and territories will be asked by federal Education Minister Dan Tehan to ban mobile phone use by students during school hours from next year.

NSW and Victoria have already decided they will. It's an effort to tackle cyber-bullying and distraction in the classroom. Yet there is no evidence-based research for either proposition. No studies show that banning phones will improve school performance and cyber-bullying can occur any time of the day outside school hours.

Social media, among other faults, has been alleged to cause depression, isolation, addiction, suicide and brain damage. The members of iGen, we are told, are on the brink of the worst mental health crisis ever. And it is claimed much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.

How do we know? The "evidence" comes from correlated data that can be interpreted to show that teens who spend more time than average on screen activities including smartphones are likelier to be unhappy. They experience loneliness and the feeling of being left out. Suicides have increased among young people.

It's likelier, however, that unhappy teens spend more time online than their peers for reasons that may include having no friends, not doing well at school or living in a dysfunctional family. The phone did not create their problem and a phone ban is not going to help them. It is also the case that many kids who spend a lot of time online are very sociable, and chat and play games with friends online and in the park.

Prince Harry wants online game Fortnite Battle Royale banned. This game reportedly has 200 million players around the world. Its wide appeal is credited in part to the fact the violence is cartoon-like. There is no blood or threatening menace. No knives. Its lack of misogyny, racism and appeal to non-gamers including girls has helped its extraordinary success. Some kids play with their parents and have a lot of fun doing so.

What would a ban achieve? Something else would take its place. Apex Legends, released in February, is the game of the moment. It's another Battle Royale tactical team game where you choose your own legend, build a crew and battle for fame and fortune in a fantasy world where anything goes. The game attracted 50 million players within its first month.

Give Master Archie Sussex a decade or so and he might show the prince and duchess a thing or two about the online gamers' world. Given the number of viewers and players on these media mammoths, a minuscule number commit violence, suffer mental illness, develop a disabling addiction, lack of concentration or brain damage. And when they do, the media they consume is not the major provocation for their behaviour.

The World Health Organisation now has a policy recommending no screen media for children in their first year of life and rarely in their second.

But the American Academy of Pediatrics has changed its mind. In 1999, with no research evidence to back it, it recommended no screen viewing for children under two years. But its latest guidelines for children and adolescents have shifted the focus from what is on the screen to who else is in the room.

For babies younger than 18 months, AAP still says no screens at all are the best idea, with a notable exception - live video chat. Surveys have indicated that families believe that playing live peekaboo with Grandma on Skype can be beneficial.

Governments need to lead this debate with a vision for the future of today's children. A ban on smartphones in schools is a Luddite, kneejerk, cosmetic response. Young people, many of whom will be angry and see the ban as an attack on their independence and ability to regulate their own lives, will find their way around it, especially as their intuitive skills with technology exceed those of their seniors, teachers and parents.

More important, such blinkered policies can undermine the education potential and the opportunities to develop the positive benefits to society that new technology can bring through more effective teaching, learning, social and global engagement. Smartphones are an important tool.

As far back as 2006, the Academy of American Scientists issued a statement supporting the use of computer and video games in classrooms, stating: "Games offer attributes important for learning - clear goals, lessons that can be practised repeatedly until mastered, monitoring learner progress and adjusting instruction to learner level of mastery, closing the gap between what is learned and its use, motivation that encourages time on task, personalisation of learning, and infinite patience."

Thirteen years later we are a long way from understanding and accepting this informed advice. The report, released last week on The Australian National Outlook finds: "Australia is at a crossroads." New technologies are transforming industries and creating new ones, yet Australia is sliding down the international scale measuring our country's comparative education status.

We are being told that many of today's jobs will be made redundant by technology and the next generation will be doing jobs we parents can't even imagine. Children are eager to embrace these new opportunities but we are failing to equip kids with the enterprise, adaptive and digital skills that will be vital to success in future careers. While parental anxiety is understandable, parents want the best for their children and teachers should be leading this urgent change, not sheltering behind government prohibition.

If a school needs to ban smartphones to get kids to pay attention there is something wrong with the staff's teaching skills. Children must be taught to negotiate the pitfalls of the online world just as they have to be taught to cross the road and to deal with strangers. This is the world they live in.

Instead of banning smartphones and games, parents and schools should focus on helping young people to think critically about the online world. What is needed is a media literacy program, from preschool on, to teach constructive online behaviour that will prepare kids for the future.

The technology revolution has the potential to transform the lives of billions of people and solve the problems threatening the viability and sustainability of the planet. Without technology human extinction could be inevitable, and it is young people who must deal with the serious crises now facing the planet.

Patricia Edgar has had a 60-year career as a teacher, researcher, producer and policy analyst.